on 2 August 2005
It's disappointing that le Fanu doesn't have the reputation of many other classic Victorian horror writers. Compared with his fellow Irishman, Bram Stoker, he barely registers in the public mind, and yet his novels and short stories are no less chilling or accomplished in their imagination.
'Uncle Silas' is probably the most prominent of his novels. It tells the story of young and naive Maud Ruthyn, whose father's death leaves her under the guardianship of the mysterious uncle of the title. In this respect, the plot is conventional, and the ensuing murder plot to deprive Maud of her inheritance unfolds leisurely and with little of the tense, action-filled plots of contemporary sensation novels.
Instead, le Fanu's brilliance lies not in the complexity of his plot, but in his ability to produce a brooding atmosphere of foreboding and doom that is nothing short of the heightening suspense experienced in 'The Turn of the Screw.' Descriptions are brooding and detailed, stretching conventional settings such as dark woods, locked rooms and lonely churchyards to eerie proportions. Overlaid upon these environments is the continual gloom of secret's untold and the strange influence of religious sectarianism which haunts the family.
Adding colour to these monochrome backdrops are the vividly different, yet equally foreboding, characters that populate the novel. Uncle Silas figures dominantly as the frail and sickly, yet unquestionably evil and devious, opium-addicted menace who drives the machinations of the plot. His tool in his schemes is the grotesque Madame de la Rougierre, who figures as Maud's governess, and who's unsuppressed hatred for the child provides a constant source of fear and anxiety for the orphan while she attempts to uncover the secret that the Frenchwoman suppresses.
Although a classic Gothic novel in appearance, the tale isn't without its light moments, and it is this juxtaposition of moods that makes the overall effect so pronounced. The main characters flit in and out of the spotlight, trading places with a variety of other smaller characters whose intentions and affiliations both Maud and the reader are made to puzzle over in an ever heightening spiral of danger and deceit. This is an excellent novel, one which portrays another side of the dark Victorian imagination, and does so with unsettling authenticity.
Uncle Silas is an 1864 novel which seems to incorporate almost every aspect of the Victorian sensation/gothic novel you can think of: gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison, family secrets. I had high hopes for the book as it sounded like exactly the type of classic I usually enjoy, and after a slow start it didn't disappoint.
Our heroine (and the narrator of the story) is Maud Ruthyn who lives with her father at Knowl, their family estate. Maud is fascinated by a portrait of her Uncle Silas which hangs on one of the walls inside the house - she has never met her uncle before and is intrigued by hints of scandal in his past. When Mr Ruthyn decides to find a governess for his daughter, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre comes to live at Knowl and a chain of events begins which will finally bring Maud into contact with her mysterious Uncle Silas.
And that's really all I can tell you about the plot without beginning to give too much away! I had managed to avoid reading any big spoilers so I never had any idea what was coming next, and I think that was the best way to approach this book.
It did take me a while to really get into the story. It was fun and entertaining from the beginning and I was never actually bored with it, but it seemed to take such a long time before anything really happened. It wasn't until about one hundred and fifty pages into the book that the pace began to pick up and then I could appreciate why Le Fanu had taken his time building the suspense and slowly creating a mood of menace and foreboding. It was a very atmospheric and creepy story (particularly any scene featuring Madame de la Rougierre, who must be one of the most horrible, grotesque villains in literature), though I didn't find it as scary as I had expected to.
Maud may not be the strongest of female characters but she felt real and believable to me. Although she could be brave when she needed to be, she was young and naïve and I felt genuinely worried for her as she found herself becoming increasingly isolated, not sure who she could and couldn't trust. And for me, this was where the story could be described as frightening: the complete lack of control Maud had over her own destiny and the way she was forced to depend on people who may not have had her best interests at heart.
If you enjoyed The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins then I think there's a good chance you'll like this book too. It doesn't have as many surprising twists and turns as The Woman in White but it is a similar type of book, though with a much darker and more gothic feel. I think it's a shame Le Fanu isn't as widely read as other Victorian authors, as his work is definitely worth reading. I hope you'll decide to give this book a try if you haven't already.
on 27 August 2009
This was a book club choice from our resident Jane Austin fan who recommended it with the strange comment that it was an "absolutely thrilling book where nothing really happened". As I read it, I marvelled that this was indeed the case. Brilliant psychological thriller of its time.
on 31 July 2001
One of the most striking points about this book is that apart from a few scattered incidents and a wonderful melodramatic ending very little happens! Yet the whole story had me in a state of almost unbearable tension. Le Fanu creates an atmosphere of evil which pervades the whole book. Madame Le Rougierre is always a dangerous character and once Uncle Silas is actually in the story his malignant presence, with mood swings, opium overdoses and fake religious fervour, overtakes everything.
Silas is a wonderful character; in my opinion he is the equal of other great Gothic characters such as Dracula. His evil is all the more defined because there is always the chance that he is a reformed character. Maud, the heroine of the story, finds him terrifying yet desperately wants to believe in him as her father did. Here Le Fanu is very clever, because we, the readers, are perfectly aware that as Silas is the title character of a Gothic horror he is highly unlikely to be good, but of course Maud does not have our knowledge. Like a modern horror film when we know that the girl should not go down into the basement where the murderer is lurking, we know that Maud should not agree to her late father's wishes and take Silas as her guardian, but if it was happening to us we would probably have done the same. Part of Le Fanu's magic in this novel is that he has Maud constantly in the midst of terrifying paranoid fantasies about the danger she is in but then she snaps to with a burst of apparent common sense, and looks at the situation as normal people would. Unfortunately for her the situation is not a normal one.
The ending is magnificent and well worth waiting for; the fact that the story built up so slowly with such atmosphere makes it all the more powerful. This is a wonderful book.
on 8 June 2010
Until I began 'Uncle Silas' I had only read a couple of Le Fanu's short stories (In A Glass Darkly (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural). Good as these are, to my mind 'Uncle Silas' is better still. The story itself is quite straightforward: when Maud Rhuthyn's father dies his will dictates that she will remain under the guardianship of her uncle Silas until she comes of age (and into the possession of her large inheritance). Uncle Silas however is, for some mysterious reason which Maud's other relatives are hesitant to disclose, a social outcast and a man of doubtful reputation. But Maud trusts her father's judgement implicitly, and travels to the old country house of Bartram-Haugh where Silas lives. Once at Bartram-Haugh however, Maud finds herself ever more isolated from the outside world, and though all kinds of things point to the contrary Maud time and again tries to convince herself of the honourable intentions of her uncle Silas.
I very much enjoyed this book for several reasons. First of all there's the heroine (though heroic she is not) Maud. I'm sure that to most 21st century readers she probably comes across as naive in the extreme but I found her very believable as a character nonetheless. This is according to me largely due to the fact that Maud is also the narrator of her own story, which allows Le Fanu to explore (and reveal to us) the workings of her mind and her inner logic. She may think, feel and react entirely different from us, but to discover why she thinks, feels and reacts as she does makes for fascinating reading. In fact, to me that is one of the key features of all good books: they open a window into other people's minds in such a way that we come to 'understand' them (though at the same time perhaps strongly disapproving of what they do or how they reason). Furthermore, in all her naivety Maud is a very likeable character, the kind you hope the author has a happy ending in store for (although I must confess that at times her unwillingness/inability to 'read the writing on the wall' did exasperate me). It is this detailed psychological study of a young, innocent person caught in the web of a villainous older person that makes 'Uncle Silas' far more than a mere horror story.
The whole story is framed as a memoir written by Maud and in theory this could spoil the fun (because whatever's in store for her at Bartram-Haugh, she obviously lived to tell the tale). However, this did not happen in my case, on the contrary: from the very beginning Maud's story grasped my attention and I found myself rushing from chapter to chapter to find out what happened next. All chapters are in fact written with exactly that in mind which is logical knowing that 'Uncle Silas' was first serialised in 1864 before it appeared in a three-volume first edition.
Lastly, I should mention Le Fanu's superb craftmanship in creating a sinister atmosphere, where something horrible always seems about to happen (and sometimes does). All in all, a superb novel, and deservedly a classic!
on 17 February 2013
What a cracking good read this novel is! I've read many of Le Fanu's works before, and have always admired his supreme command of the gothic genre; but having read this book, I have to conclude that he has out-gothicked even himself! The famous ghost story writer M.R. James rated it (justly in my opinion) as Le Fanu's 'magnum opus'.
Although written in 1864, and in spite of some dialogue which dates it, this novel has a remarkably modern writing style. Short chapters, and sustained action make it a real page-turner. This is something I've noticed in all Le Fanu's works...perhaps in part due to his Irish roots, Le Fanu knows how to capture your attention like a celtic bard around a warm fire in the winter's gloom reciting a ghostly legend.
He is grossly underestimated (almost overlooked!) as a writer of the Victorian period, and ought to be rated above Wilkie Collins and up there with Stevenson and even Dickens. Uncle Silas himself must be one of the most intriguing and complex character studies by any author in the whole of English literature. It is well known that 'Jane Eyre' was heavily influenced by the Brontes' avid reading of Le Fanu's early stories. One has to conclude that the epithet of 'genre' writer has unjustly stained his reputation. Time to remove the stain!
on 19 January 2015
Although usually categorised as a ‘sensation’ novel, Uncle Silas is a slow-burning exercise in atmosphere and drawn out suspense that is likely to frustrate as many readers as it entertains. The protagonist is a sheltered young girl who, at the beginning of the novel is living under the protection of her rich father, a devout and emotionally withdrawn recluse. I don’t want to give away the story, but suffice to say that various threatening forces begin to enter the life of the young lady, beginning with the arrival of an extraordinarily eccentric and malevolent French governess with nefarious hidden intentions. There is nothing wrong with the writing in this novel, much of which is highly atmospheric and suggestive. Some of the character portraits too are as vivid and exciting as those of Dickens, for example. Modern readers, however, may lose patience with aspects of the novel, such as the innocence and lack of agency of the heroine. Her position, as the young, only daughter of a devout rich recluse living in a remote country estate mean that she understands very little of the world she lives in (we understand more than her, which is not much) and has virtually no power to act against the forces that conspire around her. When the central character is so helpless, reading about her becomes sometimes tedious and repetitive. Too many things just happen to her, and she has no particular goals or desires which might create a sense of stakes to play for. The other big problem is that for long stretches of the novel, very little happens. The novel of suspense works according to a principles of anticipation and delayed gratification. Wilkie Collins was a master of this. Uncle Silas delays gratification until you can’t even remember what it was you were anticipating; case in point: Uncle Silas, the titular character doesn’t even appear until almost halfway through the book. When he does, it is rather a letdown, as we haven’t been given enough facts about him to feed our imagination. The merits of Uncle Silas ultimately lie in its portrayal of atmosphere and character, its sense of brooding menace and innocence under threat. But structurally, it’s a stodgy Victorian pudding of a novel.
on 5 August 2012
Le Fanu's novel published in 1864 is the tale of Silas Ruthyn, a man suspected of murdering a gambler found dead at Silas's home Bartram-Haugh in Derbyshire. Silas's brother Austin believes wholeheartedly in his innocence and on Austin's death bed he leaves a will stating that Silas is to be awarded guardianship of Austin's daughter Maud. Austin's belief and trust in his brother Silas is shown by the fact that if Maud dies before coming of age, Uncle Silas will receive her fortune.
Silas attempts to marry Maud off to his son, Dudley (already married) but Maud refuses. Under the belief that she is on her way to school in France, Maud finds she is a prisoner at Bartram-Haugh. Silas, Dudley and a creepy French Governess Madame de la Rougierre, plot to murder Maud, but the Governess is killed by Dudley by mistake and Maud escapes.
Le Fanu (1814-1873) is a master of the ghost story and Uncle Silas is full of atmosphere and chilling moments. Those who are wise will uncover a world of magic in the writings of Le Fanu if they should care to delve into his works. Excellent!
on 8 February 2016
Uncle Silas was published at the height of the craze for what was known as ‘sensation’ fiction, popularized predominantly by Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone) and by Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley’s Secret). Nevertheless, Le Fanu distanced his novel from this genre, describing it instead as a belonging to the ‘legitimate school of tragic English romance’.
Despite this disclaimer, as Victor Sage argues in his introduction, the novel has a ‘self-consciousness about its genre’: it is both a prime example of the sensation novel and what is generally regarded as the second ‘wave’ of the Gothic novel in the Victorian period, after its beginnings in the late eighteenth century. On at least two occasions, Le Fanu references the work of Ann Radcliffe (in particular her bestseller The Romance of the Forest (1793)), in describing the predicament of Maud Ruthyn, the novel’s heroine. Similar to Adeline La Motte, the heroine of Radcliffe’s gothic thriller, Maud finds herself at the mercy of a distant relation with a mysterious shady past, in this case her ‘enigmatical’ uncle Silas, after her father, Austin Ruthyn dies, leaving her an enormous inheritance that she is not yet able to claim as her own. Interestingly, Sage notes that the characters of Silas may possibly be modelled on William Beckford, the author of the Oriental-gothic-fantasy novel Vathek (1786) and who was infamous for queer affair with his younger cousin.
Le Fanu gradually creates a feeling of mystery and suspense about uncle Silas through Maud’s retrospective narration of events and the suspicious rumours told about his character. The reader does not meet Silas until one third of the way through the novel. The fine portrait of him as a handsome young man that hangs in Knowl Hall is contrasted with various stories that Maud hears, principally from her cousin, Lady Monica Knollys. One of these rumour is that Silas was ‘unspeakably vicious’ in his youth, and was accused of the murder of a man called Charke, and is now reputed to be a follower of the obscure religious cult of Swedonborgianism. While her father is alive, a French governess comes to Knowl to look after Maud, Madame de la Rougierre. Undoubtedly, Le Fanu’s creation of this character is one of the most powerful portraits of a villainesses in Gothic fiction, albeit touched with a little Francophobia:
‘ She was tall, masculine, a little ghastly perhaps, and draped in purple silk, with a lace cap, and great bands of black hair, too thick and black perhaps to correspond quite naturally with her bleached and sallow skin, her hollow jaws, and the fine but grim wrinkles traced about her brows and eye-lids. She smiled, she nodded, and then for a good while she scanned me in silence with a steady, cunning eye, and a stern smile.’
As Victor Sage notes in his informative introduction, Rougierre is also a part of the comic grotesqueness and humour that characterizes the novel at times. In particular, the rendition Rougierre’s poor pronunciation of English is rendered to comic effect. Perhaps one of the strengths, but also one of the difficulties for the modern reader too, is Le Fanu’s use of voice, especially those of the minor characters. As Sage notes: ‘the novel constantly sets dialect, slang and Madame’s unforgettable stew of argot and broken English against archaically polite versions of standard English, in an almost carnival fashion’ (xx). After Maud grows increasingly afraid of Rougierre and distrusts her motives after she catches her one evening rifling through her father’ desk, looking at his papers, Rougierre is confronted by Austin Knowl and dismissed.
After her father dies, Maud has to leave her family home to live with her uncle and her only cousins, Milly, in hermetic isolation at Bartram Haugh in Derbyshire. Similar to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights on a larger scale, Bartram Haugh is a ruined mansion that is wild, remote, enshrouded in old woods, with disused and dark corridors and rooms, and few visitors. Befriended by her tomboyish, unpolished cousin Milly, who like Cathy in Wuthering Heights is left to run wild, Milly tells her that ‘I know I’m queer, but I can’t help it; and it’s a shame’ (p.222). Milly shows her the parts of the house that have been shut up for years, and where Maud thinks Charke was murdered. She also sees a place that will eventually come to have a distinct significance, both herself and for Madame de la Rougierre, who later returns to plot her downfall:
‘I rubbed the window-pane with my handkerchief and looked out. The surrounding roof was steep and high. The walls looked soiled and dark. The windows lined with dust and dirt, and the window-stones were in places tufted with moss, and grass, and groundsel. An arched doorway had opened from the house into this darkened square, but it was soiled and dusty; and the damp weeds that overgrew the quadrangle drooped undisturbed against it. It was plain that human footsteps tracked it little, and I gazed into that blind and sinister area with a strange thrill and sinking.’(p.224).
on 14 February 2013
Very atmospheric and gripping. A classic gothic creepy tale and an ideal winter read and I would definitely recommend it